“Then Gilead cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever an Ephraimite fugitive said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead asked him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he answered ‘No,’ they said, ‘Then say Shibboleth.’ He would say ‘Sibboleth,’ since Ephraimites could not pronounce the word correctly. Thereupon they seized and slaughter him by the fords of the Jordan” (Judges 12:5-6).
“When [Peter] went out to the gateway another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, ‘This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.’ And again, with an oath, he denied it, ‘I do not know the man.’ A little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘You are one of them for sure! Why, you accent gives you away'” (Mt. 26:71-73).
Whenever I open my mouth, the hearer of my words can quickly ascertain that I am a Hispanic. Like Peter, my “accent gives me away.”
This is due to two linguistic challenges I have when speaking English. The first is my difficulty in pronouncing the “th” sound. The second is the confusing of the “r” sound with “w,” hence my nickname in junior high, Elmer J. Fudd, the cartoon character with a speech impediment that was Bugs Bunny’s nemesis. To the delight of my tormentors I would say, “I’m going to catch me a wabbit.”
As an adult, I still seem to delight people with my accent. One day I was teaching class when I noticed two students in the back of the class giggling and snickering. When I asked if I said something humorous they responded in the affirmative, claiming that I “talked funny.” I responded by letting them know that I can talk funny in over five languages. Then I added, “How many languages do you talk funny in?”
No doubt, I am a product of my social location. Even my speech pattern betrays who I am and where I come from. As far as I am concerned, this is not a problem, except when my inability to pronounce a word correctly leads to my slaughter “by the fords of the Jordan.” This is done when the dominant culture finds it offensive when I communicate in what my mother would call, “the language of angels”–Spanish.
I was at a collegial conference, surrounded by learned men and women, individuals with doctorates, leaders in their field. When I saw a friend who is a Latina, I walked up to her, and in Spanish, began to ask her about her family, latest publication and the weather–the usual chit-chat that occurs among friends who have not seen each other for some time. After a few minutes, I gave the customary hug and kisses on the check, and walked away.
A gentleman followed me. He stopped me and asked why I was speaking Spanish to that woman. At first, I was flattered. How nice that someone is interested in my culture. I began to explain that I do some things better in Spanish and other things better in English. My friendships are deeper and my jokes are funnier when expressed in my native Spanish.
Midway through my explanation, the stranger stopped me. “No, no,” he said, “I was wondering why you are speaking Spanish. After all, this is America. Don’t you want to learn how to properly communicate in English?”
I stood there dumbfounded. Here I was among linguistic scholars, being asked such a question! But this man was offended to hear me speak in my native tongue and took it upon himself to help me learn how to better communicate in English.
Was he serious? I’ve published several books and articles in English. So I asked, “How many books did you write?” We both knew the answer to that question–none. He walked away insulted.
How dare I, an “Ephraimite fugitive,” who cannot properly pronounce Shibboleth, refuse to be “seized and slaughtered by the fords of the Jordan.” I have proudly chosen to pronounce Shibboleth as Sibboleth, and whoever has a problem with this, well, that is just their problem.
Throughout the world, a person is considered educated when able to communicate in more than one language. You have likely heard the joke about what you call a person who speaks more than one language–bilingual, and what you call a person who speaks just one language–American.
Why is this the only country in the world that does not require the knowledge of more than one language for education? Languages have an ability to open up a conversation or text to nuances that can never be detected when read in one language.
Thus far, I have read the Bible in English, Spanish, Hebrew and Greek, each time discovering new and deeper meanings. Presently, I am reading the Bible in French, discovering things about God I never realized before.
If you only know one language, learn another. Learn to read God’s words in their original tongue. If you did, you would realize how much nonsense passes off for biblical interpretation because the English translator choice of words masked their theological prejudices.
I guarantee that your interpretations of the text will radically change when read in different languages!
It is never too late. Besides, you will be surprised at a whole new world that will open up to you.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.